Those of you who read my column regularly may have noticed that I often make mention of my father, the late Victor Lavay. My dad was one of our founding partners, and that makes me the “second generation.” Talking about my father in my column is my way of keeping his memory alive and honoring VT’s modest beginnings. I am fortunate to have this forum as a creative outlet.
It’s important to pay homage to our roots, but this shouldn’t be confused with holding onto the past. My father and his partner Morris “Tiny” Weintraub enjoyed spearheading VT when the vending and amusement industries were experiencing tremendous growth. I’m sure they had their struggles and challenges as any start-up company does, but VT enjoyed many profitable years. That positive cashflow put me and my four sisters through college. Vic and Tiny reaped not only the financial rewards but also the satisfaction that came from contributing to the growth of our industry. Without question, they both made their mark on this business.
Fast forward to 2000. The industry is consolidating. Suppliers are being swallowed up by the big fish at record speed. Pioneering suppliers to the vending industry like Austin Biscuit and Keathley’s, innovators ranging from Famous Amos to Veryfine (ex-New England Apple Products), and even the last century’s conglomerates – Standard Brands, Nabisco, General Foods – are all part of this century’s larger conglomerates. Game manufacturers from Atari to Williams Electronics are no more. As cigarette bans continue to proliferate and tighten their grip, workplaces disperse and downsize, and management companies gain traction, the small operator is struggling to stay in business. It’s no walk in the park for large operators, either. Long-established companies that you thought would never sell, like bulk industry giant Folz Vending, are suddenly being absorbed.
As operators fight to survive, more manufacturing companies start to go away because their clientele isn’t getting new, large accounts that require new equipment. It’s a vicious cycle. Some close their doors and others are bought out.
What’s happened to the healthy competition that fueled our business, fostering innovation and keeping prices in line? Why does an industry that grew and prospered for more than half a century seem to be unraveling? My father is gone and suddenly the vending and amusement business is a shadow of itself? That’s not fair! Is there a connection, I ask myself. Am I doing something wrong?
As soon as I’m done feeling sorry for myself (which lasts about as long as it takes me to eat a pint of ice cream and a jumbo-size bag of microwave popcorn) I realize I am riding the roller coaster of life. Our “founding fathers” didn’t always have it easy, but we have a tendency to remember only the good times. And I am told by the old-timers that consolidation, and the apparent loss of industry headway, is a cyclical phenomenon whose previous peak occurred in the mid- to late 1970s.
Cyclical or not, there is no denying that we are facing some tough challenges right now. Allan Gilbert observed in his article What Happened to Our Industry? (VT, August) that vending’s present growth barely covers the rate of inflation. But while all businesses grappling in today’s uncertain marketplace face a variety of stressful situations, I think it is especially difficult for family-owned businesses to adapt. Their “comfort zone” is very deep, and is not often broken into by outsiders. But complacency gets us nowhere, and those of us who resist change will miss opportunities that could sustain our success.
Perhaps much of the reluctance to change is due to the conservative fiscal management and risk-avoidance that characterize many family businesses. It can be difficult for the person at the helm to get other family members to buy into new ideas. Speaking personally, I often second-guess myself and over-analyze decisions I make that deviate from the principles I learned from my father. I find myself asking, “What would Vic have done?” even though I know that the rules, and the entire playing-field, have changed.
It very often is helpful to get together with people from other family-owned businesses. You generally can find common ground, and are likely to understand and respect one another. But perhaps the greatest benefit is that their comfort zone, their time-honored principles, are different from yours, but are grounded on the same assumptions. Because each of you understands where the other is coming from, it’s relatively easy to exchange criticism that is both intelligent and sympathetic.
And, as I’ve pointed out in a previous column, a board of advisors or other informed and effective mentors are valuable, too.
This is why I was thrilled to learn that the National Automatic Merchandising Association plans to conduct a networking gathering for members of the successor generations in family-owned businesses. The timing could not be better. I agree with third-generation operator Craig Hesch of A.H. Management Group (Rolling Meadows, IL) that the opportunity to share experiences with others in the same situation can be of tremendous help. I know I have often felt alone and overwhelmed.
Some readers might think it unwise for someone in my position to admit her insecurities to an audience of 16,000 readers. Others might think this kind of self-revelation is more suited for O, the Oprah Magazine than for Vending Times. But I’ll take that risk, because bringing my fears into the open, when I can confront them, and sharing (even swapping) them with others has helped me gain more confidence. Hopefully, this column will hearten others in leadership positions by letting them know that they’ve got company and support. Sometimes that confidence and camaraderie is all it takes to get out of your own way and find room to grow.
The opportunity to engage in this kind of give-and-take with other industry members is one of the great benefits of conventions and conferences. That’s why I lament the loss of the NBPA show, whose elegy I wrote last month. And it’s why I am so glad that NAMA continues to develop new opportunities for education and interaction.